There was a long-time where consensus had it Matt Stonier was a man for the mud not the track. It was here that the Kent man had enjoyed his greatest moments.
Inter-County U20 champion in 2020, he won the English Schools title that year too. Each time he outlasted his competitors in attritional conditions.
It was a tag that followed him to Loughborough:
“I’d made Euro U20s for cross but had never really made that next level at track. When I went to Uni, everyone was like ‘He’s a cross-country runner. He’s only good on the mud.’ Uni then opened my eyes up to track and everything that followed.”
It’s an assessment that seems difficult to fathom for athletic fans now used to seeing Stonier compete with the world’s best over 1500m. Even more so when you think he made the move to Leicestershire just over two years ago.
Yet that is testament to the explosive rise of the 3:31 man, the fastest U23 Britain has ever seen.
Just 18 months ago, Stonier was opening his 2022 season in Chelmsford. He came to the BUCS Outdoor Championships with no notable titles on the track. A sprint finish with Ben Pattison later he left as the British Universities 1500m champion.
“That was kind of the first confidence booster. And then Highgate, and then it just steamrolled from there all the way through 2022.”
Sub-four and more
Stonier won the invitational mile at the Highgate Night of the 10,000m PB’s in 3:54.89 two weeks later, taking down a field that included George Mills, Irish record-holder Andrew Coscoran and 3:29 man Azzedine Habz.
A Diamond League debut in Birmingham later, his 1500m time had lowered to 3:37. Stewie McSweyn and Geordie Beamish two more notable stars in his wake.
3:35 for the first time in Poland in June, a first major championships was essentially sealed as he was the second Englishman at that summer’s UK champs.
Still the snowball continued. The 20-year-old headed to a home Commonwealth Games, negotiating his heat comfortably.
In the final Josh Kerr could only watch on behind as Stonier broke the Scotsman’s British U23 record. 3:32.50 was good enough for seventh in the fastest Commonwealth final in history.
“I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy or love the sport as much as I did in 2022.”
Even then it wasn’t over, Stonier took fifth in the European Championships in his debut in a GB & NI vest on the track.
“Looking back on 2022, in some ways I probably know I’m never going to have a season like that again. I might make the Olympics and do well at major champs, whatever, but I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy or love the event and the sport that much as I did in 2022. Everything was totally brand new.
It was opportunity after opportunity. It was people were talking about me, people showing interest and sponsors and stuff.
In some ways it’s quite sad that my best ever year might be as a 20-year-old, but I wouldn’t want to change any of that for what I had in 2022.
That was definitely a period of my life I’ll probably never forget and likely won’t be able to replicate but that’s understandable.”
2023 in review
2023 has seen Stonier lower his U23 record to 3:31.30 at the Anniversary Games. Twelfth on the all-time senior rankings. He has also stepped two places higher in this year’s UK Champs and run four of his five fastest times ever. But it would be wrong to say he’s satisfied. The goalposts have shifted:
“I think it was a success, but it was a success because of London. If I didn’t have London in there and the 3:31 from it, the experience and opportunity to race in the Olympic Stadium, I would have definitely considered the season to be a failure. I went in with the ambition to make Worlds and I didn’t.
I went in with the ambition to probably win Euro U23s and I didn’t even medal. I ran 3:34 and 3:33, but they just weren’t quite good enough to get me into those Diamond Leagues. And that’s unfortunately where you need to be to run those 3:30s and below.”
Stonier competed in three Diamond Leagues in 2022, this year London was his only appearance. Despite running faster than he ever has, in many ways Stonier’s second season at the top has seen him on the outside looking in.
“George Mills and myself, I think we were the two fastest people in the world not at Worlds. It was a bit frustrating watching people who you could beat comfortably but obviously only being three per country, it just limits that opportunity to make it.”
Early on in the call I ask Stonier what he thinks his world ranking is.
“For other countries I guess it’s a bit more meaningful. I think I was mid-20s, I don’t know to be honest.”
Stonier sits 22nd at the time of writing and has reached as high as 17. But to him the only important fact is his position outside the top-16.
“I think I found it quite hard to get into races last year and that was because I wasn’t in that top 16-17. Unfortunately if you’re in that top 16 or 17 the opportunities you get multiply which makes it easier to then stay in that top 16 or 17.”
An injury-free winter
It would be unfair to paint the conversation with Stonier as one of pessimism. The man who still has a year left in the U23 category still retains the belief he can take that final step. A few adjustments and he can force his way to Paris.
The 22-year old spent the early part of 2023 recovering from a torn plantar fascia from BUCS cross-country. Having to take February off it was a spring playing catch-up:
“All of March was building up base work again and then April and May was just trying to get some sort of base in. I didn’t really have any speed work or any specific 1500 sessions up until my first race.
I was chatting with my coach and we thought I just lacked that little last 100, last 150m probably throughout June. And that was probably down to just being a bit behind.
So it’s another important moment to make sure that I have a clean winter and don’t get held up with niggles or injuries and hopefully that will allow you to enter the season a bit earlier.”
A Euro-Cross triple
It comes as a cruel irony that he utters these words with his hand fresh from surgery. Stonier fell awkwardly on the track towards the end of his outdoor season. Finishing up some 200s a spike stuck in the track and he came down hard.
An operation was required but Stonier has recovered relatively quickly. He now faces a race against time to see if he can make a third successive GB & NI U23 team for the Euro Cross.
23rd in 2021 he finished eighth last year to help the team upgrade their Abbotstown silver to Turin gold.
“That’s probably one of my favourite events of the year. Having been for the last three years, I just think it’s a really great thing to aim for this side of Christmas. But honestly, for the whole of the next 12 months that’s not a main goal.
It would be nice to try and make it. But obviously now in the position I’m in and with the athletes in the U23 category, like Rory (Leonard), Will (Barnicoat), Charles (Hicks), it’s so stacked that these guys have been training for it, understandably since the start of September. So they have got that head start. Whether or not I have time to catch up, I don’t know yet to be honest, but I’ll do Liverpool, give it a go.”
An outsider once more?
Everywhere Stonier looks right now it must seem the competition is stacked. But in a way his position is similar to that before he broke out.
Free of expectation at this point in time others may look ahead of him in the Olympic pecking order, potentially even on that Euro Cross plane to Brussels. And that could be what makes him most dangerous.
The track star takes to the mud, once more aiming to rewrite the consensus and take his first steps in a winding road to Paris 2024.
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Featured image and all others courtesy of Mark Hookway.